The Inhumanities

Archive for the ‘Martin Heidegger’ Category

Calarco’s Zoographies: Metaphysical Anthropocentrism – Heidegger

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[My apologies for the delayed posting. Duties in the physical world imposed themselves on my time.]

In a sense, the second chapter of Matthew Calarco’s Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida on Martin Heidegger is the real introduction to the book because Calarco identifies Heidegger’s work as “an essential reference and ideal point of departure” for posing the “question of the animal” in relation to modern continental philosophy. While being both “essential” and “ideal,” this should not be taken to imply that Heidegger actually succeeds in posing the question of the animal–let alone adequately–it must be recognized that Heidegger presents a major intervention into the history of philosophy which subsequent philosophers in the continental traditional (rightly or wrongly, I’ll return to this below in my comments) take as “an essential reference and ideal point of departure.” Indeed, the subsequent chapters, on Levinas, Agamben and Derrida, could be read “as an attempt to deepen and extend certain lines of Heidegger’s thought while simultaneously holding open other lines of inquiry that his work brushed up against but ultimately forecloses.” Presented in this light, it is little surprise that Carlarco’s comments on Heidegger are, in his own words, “deeply and, at times, harshly critical.” Like Heidegger’s corpus, this chapter is wide-ranging and of great scope (about forty pages). Consequently, it is not possible to give a complete overview of the argument. Rather, I’ll concentrate on highlighting the concepts in Heidegger’s thought that Calarco engages with.

First Analysis: Demising, Dying and Perishing – as is well-known, in Being and Time, Heidegger develops an outline of the various modalities of finitude proper to various beings. Obviously, Heidegger’s primary concern remains with Dasein, the form of being specific to humans, but he often develops the analysis of Dasein in relation to the being of animals, or animality. The analysis of death presents one such example. Dasein relates to death both in the form of “as such,” but also in relation to its own death. Death, for Dasein, occurs in relation to time and being. Hence, when Dasein dies, its life does not simply come to end. This simple ‘coming to an end’ is the form of death proper to the animal, which Heidegger calls perishing. Thus, in relation to death, animals do not have excess to the modes of death proper to Dasein, which implies a significant gap or abyss between the humanity of humans and the animality of animals. Among other reasons, the importance of this analysis of death is important because it demonstrates Heidegger’s willingness to adopt rather dogmatic positions devoid of either sufficient argumentation or scientific evidence. The grounds upon which Heidegger determines that there is an essential difference between the ways in which the lives of humans end and the ways in which animal lives end are not presented or even indicated beyond assertion.

Second Analysis: World-forming, poor in world, and worldess – a goal of Heidegger’s early work in fundamental ontology is to set humanist and scientific research on the proper footing. A significant confrontation occurs between philosophy and biology in relation to fundamental ontology. Heidegger wishes to distinguish methods of analysis proper to the being of animals and plants from the methods of analysis proper to the being of humans. Again, Heidegger wish to establish an essential difference between the being of non-human lives and the being of human lives. If the difference is essential, then the methods of study must likewise be essentially different. Here, Heidegger is opposed to all forms of reductionism and thus defends a version of what we might call the relative autonomy in the various domains of life. Thus, the study of plants and animals should not be reduced to the study of physical and chemical processes. Likewise, plants and animals should not be studied in terms of human categories, such as with vitalism or psychology. However, there must be the recognition that humans are, in some sense, animals (biologically, perhaps) and that animals are, in some sense, physical beings (e.g., chemical processes). The question becomes one where physical explanation must give way to biological explanation and where this, in turn, must give way to “humanist” (my word) explanation.

Hence, it is important that reductionist arguments be avoided; i.e., reducing the explanation of humans to animals; of reducing the explanation of animals to physical entities. The opposite movement must likewise be avoided; i.e., elevating the explanation of animals to the explanation of humans (a contemporary trend here is evolutionary psychology and sociobiology). The study of animality must resist any temptation towards mechanistic explanations (as machines, as mere chemical or physical processes, what we might call neo-Cartesianism) and anthropomorphized explanations. At the same time, Heidegger resists using the categories of biology and zoology to understand the being of humans, this would be a biological reductionism. In effort to get around these risks, Heidegger develops an analysis of the relation different forms of beings have with other beings and the world; i.e., world-forming, poor in world and worldless. The human is world-forming, the animal is poor in world and the stone is worldless. Further, each analysis must be conducted in terms of the beings proper to that domain of the world: the animal must be studied on its own terms (i.e., it is inappropriate to use concepts from the human sciences or the physical sciences). This is where an opening–unpursued, however–is created whereby the animal is analyzed “on its own terms” and, better, where it is posed philosophically whether there is even a distinction to be made between human and animal being or even between living and non-living beings. Thus, this is an unexplored chance to analyze beings without recourse to anthropocentric or anthropomorphic explanations. Also of great significance, is that Heidegger resists an attempt to organize beings along a hierarchy: just because humans are world-forming, this does not imply that they have an ontological priority to animals which are world-poor or even to rocks which are worldless. Consequently, there are no grounds upon which to rank beings in terms of differences in degree. The result, however, is that beings end up being ranked in terms of differences in kind. This result follows from Heidegger’s refusal to explain animals in terms of humans and humans in terms of animals. Ultimately, “the question concerning whether such a distinction between human beings and animals can or even should be drawn is never raised for serious discussion.” The result of Heidegger’s analysis of beings in relation to the world is that he has recourse to two dogmatic theses: “the human beings and animals can be clearly and cleanly distinguished in their essence; and that such a distinction between human beings and animals even needs to be drawn.”

  • The “as” structure. The most significant difference between humans and animals identified by Heidegger is the idea of “as.” Humans are able to relate to beings “as” beings: to a tree “as” a tree or a rock “as” a rock. According to Heidegger, animals do not have this relation, which accounts for why their being is “poor in world.” (This is a specific version of the thesis that humans differ from animals specifically in their possession of language.)

Third Analysis: animal rationale – here Calarco turns to a discussion of Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche and Parmenides. According to Heidegger’s well-known thesis, Nietzsche fails to overcome the metaphysical tradition, but rather completes it in his analysis of humans as the animal rationale. Nietzsche’s concept of the “will to power” re-arranges the terms of “animal” and “rational,” privileging the bodily, or animal, nature of the human being rather than speaking, discursive or rational part. Thus, the difference here is between “the rational animal” and “animal who is also rational” (my gloss). For Heidegger, this does not present an overcoming of metaphysics, but a playing out of the final permutation. Calarco’s view, here, is that Heidegger is wrong in his assessment in that Heidegger appears to confuse “subjectivity” and “human subjectivity.” For Calarco, Nietzsche is engaged in an attack on the latter, or what he calls anthropocentrism. Here, Calarco cites the well-known passage from “Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense” on the history of some “clever animals invention of knowledge.” The question Calarco would like to pose in relation to Nietzsche (and also Rilke) is the hypothetical: “What would be lost of human beings were somehow to become ‘animal’ and leave behind their ‘higher’ faculties?” Such a hypothetical is a direct attack on the entirety of Heidegger’s project, which seeks to uncover and guard the secret of the essential difference between humans and animals. The importance of this section is that it begins the critical move from “metaphysical humanism and metaphysical anthropocentrism” to a non- or anti-anthropocentric conception of the world where humans become beings among many other beings, opening up the possibility for divergent perspectives upon the world where one perspective is not necessarily privileged over another; e.g., why privilege the human capacity for rational thought over the bat’s radar or the dog’s nose? Why is one way of engaging with the world “better” than another?

Fourth Analysis: metaphysical humanism and metaphysical anthropocentrism – the final section turns to a consideration of the connection between humanism and anthropocentrism, a question which Heidegger raises in his essay, “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth” where he notes that the “beginning of metaphysics in the thought of Plato is at the same time the beginning of ‘humanism.'” Here, Heidegger notes the connection between human subjectivity and anthropocentrism under the heading of humanism, which differs from the later account in the “Letter on ‘Humanism.'” At issue is whether humans should be thought of as one of the living beings among many others (which Heidegger continues to identify with biologism) or should humans be thought of in exceptional terms? In fancier terms, what is at issue is whether the being of humans belongs to animalitas or humanitas? Here we return to the question of language: where does language arrive from? Simply put (and not how Calarco explains it, by the way), language does not appear in animals, but it does appear in humans, thus language must arise from something specific to humans. Consequently, it cannot be said that language, that which is specific to humans, arises out of animalitas, but only humanitas. (One thinks of Chosmky’s “universal grammar” as an essential difference between humans and animals.) While Heidegger’s analysis here is moderately novel, Calarco notes that Heidegger has not said anything fundamentally new about the distinction between humans and animals (language is a standard dividing line), thus despite his efforts, Heidegger remains trapped within the tradition of humanism. In this sense, Heidegger also remains trapped within an anthropocentric vision of the world.

Points of Discussion

Admittedly, despite having gone through a Nietzschean-Heideggerian phase late in my undergraduate education, I am not especially knowledgeable of Heidegger’s works beyond the classics; e.g., Being and Time, “The Question Concerning Technology,” “Letter on Humanism,” “The Origin of the Work of Art,” and “The Age of the World Picture.” Certainly, more than I’ve read of other important philosophers, but limited in the context of Heidegger’s own thought. Another influence in my intellectual development (for better or for worse) was an engagement with Alexandre Kojeve’s lectures on Hegel, which were just as influential on subsequent continental philosophy as Heidegger’s thought. As is well known, students in Kojeve’s lectures were a veritable “who’s who” of French thought including, for instance, Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In his lectures, Kojeve considers, among other things, the relation between time, death and history, including an extended engagement with the differences between human and non-human life, such as in the lecture “The Idea of Death in the Philosophy of Hegel.” The question I would pose in this context concerns the possibility of writing a different history of the animal in light of Kojeve-Hegel rather than in light of Heidegger. What would the question of the animal be in the context of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception? of the flesh? or Georges Bataille’s work on sacrifice, excess and death?

Written by Craig McFarlane

September 11, 2009 at 4:02 pm